The Colibrí Center for Human Rights: Working to End Migrant Death and Suffering on the U.S. Mexico Border


Increasing violence and lack of economic opportunity in Central America and Mexico, paired with several large-scale border militarization initiatives passed by the United States government in the mid-1990’s, have coalesced to create a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico Border.  Economic refugees and others in pursuit of work and greater personal safety have been effectively forced away from traditional urban migration routes due to measures like Operation Gatekeeper, and into the harshest, most isolated regions of the U.S.-Mexico border. This funneling process has led to an unprecedented precipitous increase in migrant death, particularly in southern Arizona, where the remains of 2,368 people have been recovered since 1999. Unfortunately, this public health, human rights, and national security concern has not been met with any sort of comprehensive solution by either the Mexican or U.S. Governments. According to Amnesty International, “The lack of data is a serious barrier to determining the steps that need to be taken to mitigate the prevalence of migrant deaths along the border” (2012).

Program Summary

According to Border Patrol counts, which are incomplete, 5,595 migrants have been found dead on the U.S. side of the border since 1998. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights has three main objectives aimed at ending these deaths on the border:

  1. Provide compassionate assistance through direct service to families of the missing and dead.
  2. Produce evidence-based research and data on the dead and missing, statistics that as of now are virtually unknown.
  3. Finally, we are in the process of developing an education and outreach program that will be informed by our research and direct service to families. Through this work we will support our social change goals for the general public while holding policy-makers responsible


According to the WJP Rule of Law Index, Mexico ranks 91st out of 97 countries indexed on protecting its citizens from crime and violence. On the northern side of the border in the United States, “there is a perception that minorities and foreigners receive unequal treatment” (WJP Rule of Law Index 2012-2013).  These factors are not unrelated, and paint a negative picture of human rights on the US-Mexico Border today. Colibrí is currently serving almost 2,000 families that have filed missing persons reports with us. We are dedicated not only to naming the dead, but also to sharing the story of the human cost border security presents when not accompanied by considerations for the missing and unidentified.

Colibrí is committed to collecting data on the missing, which the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner can then use in their efforts to identify the dead. Although identification means acknowledgement of a loss, for the families it also marks the beginning of an extremely important grieving and healing process, one which cannot happen without confirmation of death.

Quality data and grounded research will further the conversation about immigration, will provide greater insight into the structures that increase the probability of death, and will ultimately lead to ending deaths on the border. In this way, we will impact the public, border communities, and policy makers in both the U.S. and countries from which migrants depart.


Colibrí has strong existing partnerships with:

  • The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner;
  • The University of Arizona;
  • The Ford Foundation;
  • The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA);
  • The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF);
  • The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs); and
  • The creators of the documentary, “Who Is Dayani Cristal?”

Newer partnerships to be enhanced include those with:

  • The Southern Borders Communities Coalition;
  • The Border Network for Human Rights;
  • The South Texas Human Rights Center;
  • The Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley
  • The Conference of Western Attourneys General (CWAG); and
  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Project Details

Program Status:

Program Type:Partner

Region:Latin America & Caribbean

Program Countries:Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and United States

Rule of Law Index Factors: Open Government (Factor 3), Fundamental Rights (Factor 4), Regulatory Enforcement (Factor 6), and Civil Justice (Factor 7).

Issue Areas: Human Rights, Military and Public Safety, Public Health, and Security and Law Enforcement.